Rural Coalition: Farmers still “hang” on the counters, the application of digitalization in its initial stage

Age, habits, mentality, lack of sufficient knowledge, resistance to change and learning something new, fear of making a mistake – what is the key reason for the low level of digitalization in Macedonian agriculture? Why is it much easier for most of our farmers to go to the regional unit and “hang” on the counters, even if it means additional loss of time and risk for their own health in a Covid-19 pandemic, instead of doing all the necessary steps from home, sitting comfortably in front of a computer, applying for subsidies or getting some documents? The latest research of the Rural Coalition showed that the level of digital literacy is low, especially in rural areas, but also that the use of e-services is extremely unsatisfactory. Additionally, for the young, this sector is not attractive enough.

According to the relevant Ministry, digitalization is a reality and our farmers will have to be educated and will have to use digital tools. Farmers, on the other hand, are divided. Some believe that the problem should not be located only in them, but also in the institutions.

– The older generations find it much harder to accept change and cope with digital solutions, and the younger ones who have more knowledge in this area, unfortunately, still do not consider agriculture attractive or a sector in which they would build their profession and career. This is where part of the solution should be sought – how to increase its competitiveness through the modernization of the sector, and thus increase the number of young people who will be engaged in agriculture or will develop other activities in rural areas that will bring them economic benefit through diversification of agricultural holdings, the executive director of the Rural Coalition, Liljana Jonoski, told MIA.

If the results of the research are analyzed, an interesting contradiction is noticed: 87% of the surveyed farmers have a Facebook profile, but when they have to take or submit a document, 64% prefer the counter services. They go to the counters in the institutions even though everything is available to them with one click.

According to the survey, 29 percent of respondents are fluent in the Internet and electronic communications. Although 76 percent have their own e-mail address through which they could contact the institutions (Ministry of Agriculture, PRO), most do not use it. They have forgotten their password or the account is not active at all. That was one of the reasons for the huge crowds that were created last year during the state of emergency and the quarantine due to COVID, given that an active e-mail was needed to obtain permits to move during curfew, says Jonoski.

At the beginning of this year, again due to not knowing the e-mail addresses and lack of knowledge about e-communication, a large number of farmers did not inspect their annual tax return, so they faced the inability to return their yearly income tax because in the section “other incomes”, the purchase centers or the processing facilities with which they have concluded production contracts put the raw materials, masks, disinfectants and other materials that were delivered to the farmers.

– This situation deserves special research on the topic of how many farmers in certain cases due to the low level of digital literacy are damaged by institutions, as well as how negative is the trend of establishing digitalization processes only on one side, in this case only by the institutions if that trend is not followed by the citizens, points out Jonoski. The numbers in the area of the payment cards are also defeating. When asked “do you have a payment card”, 92% of respondents answered in the affirmative, but most still use the card only to withdraw money from an ATM. Only 26 percent of them pay their bills electronically, and 11 percent shop online.

Similar are the percentages from the answers for submitting applications for property lists, applications for subsidies and issuance of birth/marriage certificate – documents that are considered the most requested electronic services and are part of the most common documents that farmers need when submitting applications for financial support from the National Rural Development Program and the IPARD Program. A total of 41.5 percent of the respondents answered that when applying for subsidies they use help from the employees of the responsible institutions, 37.8 percent said that they do not apply electronically, and 20 percent that they apply on their own. Neither owning a smart device or computer nor internet access is a problem. The survey showed that 85% of household farms have a smart phone and in addition, they have a laptop or desktop computer. However, few have a tablet – only 10 percent. A total of 93 percent of respondents said they have access to the Internet in the place where they live and have devices with which they can use the Internet, said Jonoski and added that 62 percent of respondents are familiar with the possibility of electronic issuance of documents. Jonoski concludes that farmers have basic digital skills, but their non-formal education must be enhanced through various trainings and internships. This is also confirmed by the fact that to the question “would you use electronic services if you were provided with support”, almost unanimously with 93 percent, the answer is YES.

If I can sit on Facebook for 2-3 hours a day, I am sure that I can learn how to use e-services, at least the simpler ones, said one of the respondents.

Farmers divided over digitalisation

Vesna Janevska, a registered farmer from Rosoman, believes that the problem with the low level of digitalization should not be attributed only to the producers, although it is a fact that those who are older do not perform their work electronically. The reason for the inefficiency in this segment, according to her, should be sought at the institutional level. Farmers, he says, do not have trust until they personally submit the document or receive it in hard copy and stamped. Sometimes they send the recommended documents to make sure they arrive, but not electronically.

-Which of the farmers older than 50 years works electronically? And if you want to apply to the Regional Office, employees often complain that the system is wrong or that it is down. The employee is sitting in front of the computer, you are waiting. 1years ago, when I applied for the measure for women from rural areas, I sat with the office worker for four hours. The call was published in a very short time, the application deadline and the time for collecting documents was short. It also happens that if someone wants to apply electronically, the employees in the regional units convince them that the procedure is complex, which is not right, says Janevska.

-If someone knows how to work on a computer, they will fight for a job in the administration, not in the fields. Yes, most of them have a Facebook profile, but above all young people. The older ones, who have a profile, was created by their children and it only serves to hit “likes”. I do not believe they understand IT. I personally depend on my son, especially when I have to join an online workshop. If I do something wrong, I do not know English, I wait for him to come back from work and everyone laughs at me. Then I say to myself, it is better not to get involved than to be the subject of ridicule, Janevska states.

Unlike her, Suzana Dimitrievska from Mustafino has been intensively using electronic payment for three years and is also applying electronically for subsidies. But she understands the farmers’ fear – not to get it wrong, because she personally had a negative experience when she made a mistake when applying for the support online. Dimitrievska says that cooperatives could play a very important role, as support and promotion of digitalization in agriculture, and farmers must adapt to innovations. The use of computers should be seen as an obligation if they are serious about production.

– I plan to completely switch to electronic banking, and this is my third year applying electronically for subsidies without going to the Regional Unit at all. If I get stuck, I know somebody who knows how to do it and I ask for help. Last year, instead of writing 1,000, I wrote 10,000. In such a case, an audit comes and inspects the case to determine that a technical error has indeed been made. True, the process takes a little longer, but it is solved, says Dimitrievska.

Digitization is not a nightmare, she stressed, and it should be clearly emphasized to farmers. Regarding social networks, Dimitrievska says that it is good that farmers have Facebook because that is how they learn to use mobile phones.

What is the position of the authorities?

The Ministry of Agriculture confirms that the number of farmers applying electronically for subsidies is small and that most of them prefer physical presence and assistance from employees to submit an electronic application.

– Although the electronic application method has been working for several years, the interest of our farmers is weak. This is due to the fact that most farmers are older and do not have computer education. Even the corona crisis did not affect them to decide on the electronic application, despite our appeals and the submitted instructions for electronic application, say for MIA from the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Water Economy. However, according to the Ministry, digitalization is a reality and our farmers will have to be educated and use digital tools.

– The use of computers in agricultural production is characteristic of younger people, while older farmers rarely know how to apply digitalization in agricultural production on their own. We hope that with the natural change of the adult generation and the growing interest of young people in the agricultural sector, which has really increased thanks to the measure “Young Farmer”, this situation will change in the future, added the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Water Economy.

-Of course, everyone who has the knowledge and knows how to operate a computer, but does not have too much knowledge and skills, with the help of our call center services or departments, manages to submit applications with support by phone. There are also such applicants who have been submitting applications independently for years and have no problems applying. For those who do not have knowledge of new modern technologies, the services of the regional units of the Ministry are available and the employees together with the applicants submit applications, explains for MIA the director of the Agency, Nikica Bačovski.

According to him, as the years pass, the number of applicants who submit applications alone and without support not only for subsidies in agriculture, but also for obtaining financial support through the measures of the Rural Development Program, is growing.

-Farmers adapt to the innovations that are introduced, and this is done primarily to shorten the time they need to submit applications. With the electronic requests they can log in to the system at any time, i.e. they can do it in the late evening hours when they really have no activities around the crops. In that way, the cost they have to get to the Regional Offices is lowered and above all this is done to avoid waiting, adds the director.

From 2016, all applications for “direct payments of e-subsidies” are submitted electronically. If they are not in the “direct payments e-subsidies” system, the applications will not be accepted as submitted. The difference is that some of the applications are created with the help of employees in regional offices, and some of the applications, i.e. the applicants who know how to apply, submit them themselves. In order to receive financial support under the measures of the Rural Development Program, the applications are submitted electronically, and accompanying documentation is submitted.

-The agency must follow the trends and ensure greater transparency. Also, the applicants must have access to their applications at all times. Therefore, we are actively working on starting a model through which all applicants under the Direct Payments Program, Rural Development Program and IPARD will be able to receive basic information on the administrative course of their application from home, through their electronic devices by entering their Unique Identification Number, the unique identification number of the subject or IDB. In this way, the burden on the employees of the Agency for financial support in agriculture and rural development will be greatly alleviated, but the farmers will be able to see in real time the status of their submitted request. They will not need to call the contact center to ask about the status of their application, says Bachovski.

Data from the Paying Agency show that during last year’s campaign for submitting applications for subsidies, 9,130 ​​people submitted their applications electronically. The remaining 57,818 people submitted electronic applications, but created with the help of employees in the regional units. Of the 9,130 ​​people who applied at home, the applications were in the field of agriculture (3,858), horticultural production (1,937), maintenance of vineyards (1,484), maintenance of existing vineyards (2,006), marked heads (1,205), obtained calves (157), marked sheep heads (321) and marked goats (196), informed by the Agency.

To encourage digitalisation in agriculture, the Rural Coalition recommends developing easily accessible and understandable applications with detailed guidelines in a language understandable to farmers and rural residents, increasing e-document security through their greater promotion, sharing positive stories with locals about efficiency and the effectiveness of e-services by those who have used them, as well as direct field support and work with farmers.

 

– We believe that it is necessary to start the gradual introduction of e-services as the only or priority way of communication of institutions, introduction of educational models/curricula to increase digital skills of farmers and residents in rural areas, developed in cooperation with institutions, primarily with the Ministry for Administration and Information Society and the Employment Agency, conducting a campaign to raise awareness among citizens to use e-services, subsidizing the issuance of electronic signatures for citizens of rural and marginalized areas and establishing a local network of mobile intermediaries to promote and mediate access to the platform, says the executive director Liljana Jonoski.

The research story was prepared within the project “Digitalization in Agriculture – NOW!” funded as a sub-grant within the project “Increasing Civic Engagement in the Digital Agenda – ICEDA” implemented by the Metamorphosis Foundation (North Macedonia ), e-Government Academy (Estonia), Levizja Mjaft! (Albania), CRTA – Center for Research, Transparency and Accountability (Serbia), NGO 35mm (Montenegro) and ODK – Open Data Kosovo (Kosovo). The project is implemented with financial support from the European Union. Rural Coalition is one of the three civil society organizations from North Macedonia that became part of the regional network ICEDA – Network for increasing civic engagement in the implementation of the Digital Agenda, which is active not only in North Macedonia but also in Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro and Serbia. The annual work plan of the Rural Coalition is supported by Civica Mobilitas.

 

Note: The full text has been republished from the Rural Coalition website which bears full responsibility for its content. For the original text, click here.

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